Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fiction: Unwanted President. Chapter 3

A Good Story and a Pretty Girl

By Ed Rogers

Trying to decide if he wanted to drive all the way back to Maryland and his house, Tom had made it as far as the “Lucky 7,” a local bar whose only costumers were the workers from the New Daily. The brick on the wall outside said the bar had been there since 1926. From the looks of the inside Tom was sure the brick was real.
    He was alone with his thoughts and a second empty glass of whiskey. The day crew from the paper had come and gone and the night shift still had a couple of hours to work He jiggled the ice cubes until he got the bartender’s attention and ordered another drink. He was thinking about how many times he had had the chance to walk away and do something else with his life. The need to get that next big story, the need to be the top in any field came at a very high price. He should know, he was still paying the last bill.
    It was just about one year before the Serbs started killing people in Bosnia. Tom was starting to burn out. He had reported news stories from every hellhole in the Middle East. He needed a rest and was looking for a desk job. Ted Waters of the New Daily hired him over the telephone, having never met Tom. Ted knew Tom’s work and was both surprised and happy that he picked the New Daily to call home.
    Tom had made many contacts in the Middle East, so it was natural for him to become the Middle East desk. It was a cakewalk; no one was shooting at him, the local bar had happy hour, and he had a free apartment – unless VIPs showed up, and then he would stay in a hotel, but that happened maybe once a year. He put money down on a house in Maryland and began to enjoy life. New York had an abundant supply of available women and more bars than a person could get to in a lifetime. He was wondering why he hadn’t made the move sooner – things were looking quite good for old Tom.
    Then Bosnia hit the news – or didn’t hit the news. Reports coming out of Bosnia were so confused that no one could make heads or tails of the situation, and there were no seasoned reporters on the ground. They needed to know what was happening, and Tom was their man on the Middle East desk. After getting his shots updated, Tom was off to another war. This one would be like nothing he had ever seen before.
    At a hotel – which looked more like a bordello – on the border crossing between Macedonia and Bosnia, the reporters were hold up waiting for a convoy to take them into the war zone. Tom felt right at home once more. The comradeship of war correspondents was not unlike that of soldiers. Only with those who had tasted the smell of death could he laugh and joke about his feelings. They all make light of war and death, but they knew it could touch them at any moment.
    They would be traveling with some aid workers that were taking supplies to the refugees. Thousands had been displaced by the Serbs. After fleeing their homes and having survived the looting, rape, and killing, now they were starving. The only hope these people had was the aid convoys. Tom had a two-day wait, but some of the others had been there for a week.
    The hotel had a bar of sorts – it was on the third floor, and it was run by an enterprising Arab, who spoke English and knew how to turn a buck. No one was supposed to know about the bar, but everybody did. If you gave reporters free time, they would find a drink – even in a country that forbids alcohol.
    This was where Tom met Kay Wyatt. If ever God wanted to make a female Tom Warring, he would have named her Kay Wyatt. Kay was a real looker, smart, and hard as nails. Kay would go anywhere for a story. She spent three months with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, during the Russian war. She stayed with people who treated dogs better than women, but she got her stories out and to press. More importantly, she was able to get out alive, and with her came insight into al-Qaeda that very few Westerners enjoyed.
    Kay and Tom hit it off right from the start. The places they had been and the things they had covered – it was as though they were soul mates. The passions run high when you know tomorrow may never come and tonight would have to last a lifetime. They had two days and nights of sex and booze. They became legendary at the hotel for their wild parties.
    Then it was time for the convoy to pull out. They were as close to being in love as either of them had ever been. They weren’t new at this game, what happened in a war zone stayed in the war zone. The odds of something coming out of a meeting like theirs were very small, but there was a bond between them that gave them hope. Tom had never talked to any woman about a tomorrow, not together anyway. He could see them growing old and riding off into the sunset. This was a new feeling for both of them.
    The convoy had driven for three hours when the tanks pulled out of the trees. It was the Serbs trying to get back to their lines. If the truck drivers of the convoy didn’t do as ordered, the soldiers would kill everybody. The Serbs were in a hurry and didn’t ask for identification. If they had, every reporter on the convoy would have been shot.
    NATO planes were taking out Serb tanks wherever they could find them. These Serbs were hoping to use the aid convoy to hide from the tank killers. Tom had no idea how they thought they could hide a tank out on an open road.
    The convoy started moving down the road once more, and Kay said, “We need to get the hell out of here. Those NATO planes will not be able to identify this as an aid convoy, not with those Serb tanks. They’ll see the tanks, and they’ll bomb the shit out of us.”
    The words were no more out of her mouth than they heard the sound of the plane. Then came the explosions.
    They were out and running, with the sound of the exploding bombs ringing in their ears. The earth was rocking and rolling under their feet with each bomb blast. Parts of vehicles were landing around them, which posed an enormous danger. They ran as if the Devil himself was after them. They ran until they could run no more.
    Falling down beside the wall of a burned-out house, Tom pulled Kay close to him. They were breathing so hard, neither could talk for several minutes. Then they realized they were alone. Tom looked at Kay, “What happened to the other reporters?”
    Trying to think about what had just happened, Kay said, “I heard shooting, and explosions behind us, but I just ran, and never looked back.”
    Tom stood halfway up and looked over the blown-out wall. About thirty yards back toward the convoy he saw two bodies. The sky was black with smoke over what was left of the tanks and trucks. “We need to find some cover. If any of those Serbs lived, we don’t want to run into them.”
    They walked down to a still-smoking, burned-out shell of a town. There were bodies everywhere. Women, old men, and children littered the streets like discarded newspapers. The smell of death was unbelievable. The air felt so thick with the stink, they thought they were going to suffocate.
    Then they came upon what looked like the main street. Nothing was moving in the town, other than the rats that ventured out of their hiding places to chew on the corpses. Halfway down the block, something hit the wall beside Tom, and then he heard the crack of the rifle. He grabbed Kay’s arm and pulled her into an open doorway, where they fell into a darkened room.
    Neither Tom nor Kay had time to get their wits about them, before a voice from the darkness said, “You must be out of your bloody minds, mates. You can’t be walking out in the open in Bosnia.” Tom recognized the voice as that of one of the reporters who had been on the truck in front of theirs. Tom asked, “Did anyone else make it out?”
    The man, who Tom believed to be Lee Morris, said, “I don’t think so. You are the only people I have seen – that are alive, at any rate.”
    Lee told them, “The Serbs still own this side of the city; that’s why it’s blown to hell and back. Three blocks up, and two over, you wouldn’t think there is a war going on. AP has an office over there, or they did last time I was here. In this country, you can’t be sure of anything. When I was last here that part of town was as safe as walking down any street in New York. You can make a run for it after dark if you like. I think I’ll hang out here for a while.”
    After darkness arrived, Tom and Kay make their way to the AP office. It was slow going; the town didn’t have one light turned on. Tom and Kay felt their way along the blocks, and around the corners. They never saw Lee Morris again.
    Kay and Tom had their own jobs to do. There were cab drivers for hire who would take you just about any place you wanted to go. They also knew which part of town to stay out of and keep alive. The cabbies seemed to be the only ones working, and the reporters were their only customers. The number of stories the reporters were required to file was enormous. While at the same time the number of reporters was getting smaller by the day. Some died, some just said the hell with it and went home. It was hard to tell where the battle lines were – in one block of town, the people were friendly – in the next block they were shooting at you. Death was always just feet away from you.
    Tom’s and Kay’s paths crossed once or twice a week. Their time together was short, but they piled all the passion most people use in a year into those wonderful moments. In the midst of the horror of the place, they had each other.
    They agreed that they would take a long vacation when the war was over, and see if it was really love, or just the closeness of death. The one thing you couldn’t trust in a war was your emotions. For now, the feeling they had for each other was the only real thing they had to hold onto.
    NATO’s plan to bomb the Serbs into peace was working, or at least the Serbs were pulling out and trying to get back home where it was safe. Some had got out of their tanks and were walking home, but not all of them were ready to call it quits.
    The Serbs were being bombed back across the Sara River, but the diehards among them were killing and destroying everything in their path as they went. The stories of mass graves, where the Serbs had wiped out whole villages, were pouring into the AP office. Tom hadn’t seen any, but he did believe they were out there somewhere. Everybody wanted to be the first to verify the atrocities, but the withdrawal was going so fast it was hard to find anyone who had seen the killings.
    Kay found a local who said he would take her to a burial site. The man claimed the Serbs, just two days before, had marched people into the town from miles around. They made them dig a large pit, then shot them all, and buried them. It was something Kay had to see with her own eyes.
    Tom came back to the AP office and the first person he went looking for was Kay. When he couldn’t find her, he started asking where she had got off too, but no one had heard from her for two days. The trip to the town where the burial site was reported shouldn’t have taken more than eight hours round-trip. They were going to give her twelve more hours, then list her as missing in a combat zone. It wasn’t that people didn’t care – it was just that once you were missing in that hellhole the odds of your returning alive were very slim.
    To those in the business, the words “missing in a combat zone” meant she was supposed to be dead. The war was almost over, and now Kay had placed herself in the path of the Serbs as they were retreating. They weren’t taking prisoners; it was a reporter’s worst nightmare. At the end of a war was the most dangerous time to be in a war zone – you couldn’t depend on anything to go right. It became every man for him or herself.
    Tom had his driver take him to Kay’s last known location. The Serbs had got there first. The smell of death reached them long before they got into town. Not one building was standing. Over the city, a black cloud was rising high into the sky, blocking out the sun. The streets in the town, which once had lines of beautiful trees, were now nothing but a barren landscape. Not even one tree had survived. Nothing in the town was green – everything was burned. The town looked as if the Devil had risen from Hell and declared this his new home. Tom couldn’t understand how humans could do such things to each other.
    He looked for Kay for two days. He dug through piles of bodies. The smell was overpowering at times. He would have to pull the cloth from his face and gag up what little he had left in his stomach before going on. The bodies were swollen to the point of exploding. Some had exploded and spilled their intestines out onto the street. Tom couldn’t dig in many piles, because the bodies no longer looked human. If he moved the bodies the skin came off, or sometimes he would be standing there holding someone’s arm. Tom found the body of a mother holding what looked like her three-year-old daughter. They were decomposed together so badly there was no way to take them apart.
    After two days, he went back to the AP office and crawled into a bottle. For three days, Tom was drunk out of his head. They found him with a gun in his mouth late one night. That was the end of the road. The head of the AP got him back to Macedonia, and on a plane to the States.
    Ted Waters received a wire from the AP, telling him the story of what his reporter had gone through. Ted knew that something as bad as what Tom had experienced could end a reporter’s career, and he sure didn’t want to lose Tom. Ted met the airplane and took the heartbroken, sick being that came off the plane straight to rehab.
    Thirty days later, Ted was there to pick him up. He gave him the address of people who could help and told him he wanted him to take a leave of absence for two months.
    Ted wanted him to start going to meetings at the address. “Tom, you need to heal, and these people can help you. After two months, we will talk about your future.”

Neither the booze nor the healing erased Kay from Tom’s mind, so he just learned to live with her memory. It got easier as time went by. They never did find Kay’s body, and Tom had been tied to a desk ever since. He still drank, but no longer to forget – now it was just something he did every so often.
    Right now he wanted a drink real bad. He looked around the Lucky 7 bar, but still didn’t see anyone he knew. He thought, what the hell, a few more drinks and he would head to the apartment – no need to drive home this late at night. He still had work to do at the office – write some piss-ass piece and call it a follow-up to the Cahill story.
    The next morning found Tom with a hangover and no idea what he was going to write. It had been two weeks since Tom’s story hit the streets, and he was feeling the pressure for another story. Nevertheless, he had nothing. The state funeral for the President was the next day, and that was all anyone could talk about. Tom’s big scoop was on the bottom of someone’s birdcage, and his only lead for a follow-up to Cahill was in Europe.
    Tom picked up his telephone messages and walked toward his desk. How he hated the sound of the word desk. He needed to be out on the edge again. He was dying cooped up in a building day in and day out. What a fool he had been to give up field work!
    The previous night had been the first time he stayed in the company apartment in a year. In fact, it was the first time since his wife, Jean, divorced him. Tom had married Jean after he bought the house in Maryland, because he thought he needed a wife to make it a home.
    Tom liked his house. It was a two-story brick colonial, set back in the rolling hills of Maryland. He had thought about putting in a pool, but there was all the care a pool required. He lived alone now, and without a swimming pool. He and Jean should never have married; the hole in his heart had been too large still for that relationship to have worked. However, he enjoyed working out of his home whenever possible. With the advent of the Internet, there was not much need to come to New York.
    Going through his phone messages, Tom was both happy and surprised to find that a call from Mary Cahill had been logged in the night before. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
    “Hello,” came the sleepy voice of Mary Cahill. Tom had forgotten the time difference.
    “I’m sorry, I forgot you might be in bed. This is Tom Warring, Mrs. Cahill. I’m returning your call.”
    “Oh, yes, Mr. Warring. Please let me turn on a light…There, that’s better.”
    “I am really sorry about waking you up. If it would be better to call you back, I’ll be happy to do so.”
    “No, it’s okay. I needed to speak with you about our first meeting. You made me a promise when I came to your office – I haven’t seen anything that would indicate you’re going to keep that promise to me?”
    “Mrs. Cahill, there wasn’t much I could do after you took off to Europe. If you had come by I would have done a follow-up story quoting you.” That had popped out of Tom’s fog-filled brain and it surprised him what a good idea it was.
    “Mr. Warring, I found a journal in the storage shed my father-in-law was keeping. He had names of people that he was meeting with. There was a General Wainwright in DC and a Professor in Virginia. I’m in Germany right now waiting to hear from a man in Russia that John met with. I would have called you sooner, but I was hoping to read your story about John Sr. not being a madman. Then as the days passed and there was no story…I almost didn’t call you, but John Sr. spoke so highly of you, and I need help.”
    “Mrs. Cahill, if you can give me something to write, I would be more than happy to write it…Are you suggesting the Russians are behind the murder of our President?”
    “I don’t know who was behind what John did. You’re supposed to be the reporter – I was praying you could get me those answers. Do you still want to help me find out what happened?”
    “Mrs. Cahill, I want to help you. If you’ll send me the journal I’ll get right on it.”
    “No. I saw what happened the last time I came to you with information. I don’t trust you right now. If we’re to work together I need to be able to trust you. I’ll give you what you need to know, but I keep the journal.”
    “Mrs. Cahill, I feel we may have got off on the wrong foot, and I want to apologize for any misunderstanding we may have had. I do want to help you find the truth about your father-in-law, but I’m the professional here and if we are to do this, it’ll have to be my way.”
    “Good-night, Mr. Warring.”
    Tom looked at the dead telephone in his hand. “Who the hell does she think she is?”
    After stomping around the newsroom for a while, he had to admit to himself that he needed Mary Cahill far more than she needed him. Without her, he had no place to go; the story was dead without her and that journal. If he could just get his hands on the journal…But she was right not to trust him – he had never planned to write Cahill’s side of the story. The American people liked the idea of a madman killing their President, not a sane person.
    “Hello, Mrs. Cahill. It’s Tom Warring again. You have a deal. What do we do first?”
    “Thank you, Mr. Warring, I don’t think you’re going to regret your decision.”
    “I already do, Mrs. Cahill, but I’ll live with it.” He laughed to show he was joking.
    She ignored it. “There’s a General Wainwright, who was in DC when John met with him, but he could be anywhere by now. I think John was trying to help the general with a problem he had. But if you can’t find him, there’s a Professor Hofer, in Virginia. John met with him after Wainwright and before going to Russia. He may know why John met with Wainwright. I would have looked into them before leaving the States but I didn’t find it in his journal until I got over here. If you can, please talk to these men, or at least to Professor Hofer, and find out why John met with him. I’ve tried to phone Wainwright, but I can’t get a working number for him, and the Professor won’t take my call.”
    “Mrs. Cahill, running all over the world chasing leads is part of my job, but I normally have something that justifies the time and effort. Here you are asking me to do it on blind trust.”
    “Mr. Warring, that was what I had in you that day I came into your office. I’m hoping you will return the favor.”
    Tom felt like shit and it wasn’t just the hangover; he had lied to her to get a story and now it was time to pay for that sin. “All right, Mary – isn’t it time we call each other by our first names? – what is the address of this Professor?”
    “Check your fax, Tom, I sent you his address and the address in Finland where I want you to meet me.”
    “Finland! Why in the world are we going there?”
    “If you want this story, that is where it is leading us.”
    “All right, Finland it is.”
    “Good-night, Tom, I’ll see you in Finland, or not.”

So much crap came over the fax line, no one paid much attention to it anymore. It took Tom some time to find Mary’s fax in the pile that was running off onto the floor. With Mary’s fax in his hand, he headed to Ted Waters’s office.
    This would be the first time Tom had asked for a field assignment since Bosnia. Ted’s approval was a must or the paper wouldn’t pick up the tab for these little circumambulations.
    Tom stopped at his desk to listen to the news from the television. Someone on CNN is saying:

…a report from the FBI stating they have talked to Mary Cahill, the daughter-in-law of John Cahill, the man who murdered the President.
    After the FBI interviewed Mrs. Cahill they determined she knew nothing about what her father-in-law had done. The two had not spoken in months.
    The more Tom looked at the story of Cahill’s, the more he thought it wasn’t much of a story. Just a demented man that by pure fate, or chance, was able to kill the President of the most powerful nation in the world. No one liked to think things happened that easily, but they did. You’re walking along one day and step off a curb and, bang, a car hits you and you’re dead. The President goes to shake a soldier’s hand, and, bang, he’s dead. End of story. Shit happens.
    Tom walked up to Ted’s office and put his head inside the door. “Ted, you got a minute?”
    “Sure, come on in. You look like shit, Tom; is this about drinking? If you need help, you know I’ll be happy to go to a meeting with you.”
    “No, but thanks anyway. I’m working on a follow-up story to the one I did about the President’s death. I would like to run down some leads, but I’m not sure if it will ever get legs and walk. I may have to do some traveling. Is the paper going to have a problem picking up the tab?”
    “Tom, if you’re sure you’re ready to get back out there, you know I have never second-guessed you about your story lines. If you think there may be a story, then, you ride it until you know one way or the other. I’ll stand behind you if that’s what you’re asking.”
    “Thanks, I guess that’s what I’m asking.” Tom walked out of Ted’s office and back to his desk. He pulled the small mirror from his desk and one look told him he needed to go home and shower and shave.

Tom walked the few blocks to the apartment owned by the New Daily. The fog was lifting from his brain and he realized he needed more information before he jumped into the middle of God only knew what. Mary had told him little or nothing.
    Tom put on some coffee before he headed to the shower. Now feeling fresh, with a full cup of coffee, he removed his computer from the case he always carried.
    He went on Google and typed in, “professor hofer.” A large number of sites appeared but only a few with both “Professor” and “Hofer” in them. He settled on Wikipedia, which had an article on Professor Albert J. Hofer. He scanned past most of the information and saw that the person did indeed live in Virginia.
    Satisfied he had the right Hofer, he settled back with his coffee and began to read the bio.

Albert Hofer was born in Germany in 1946. His father was a doctor and had been a member of the SS during the war. The older Hofer was cleared of any war crimes and returned to his post-war life.
    Albert excelled in school and went on to graduate from the University of Heidelberg, as had every Hofer since the founding of the school. Upon graduating, young Albert came to the USA. He applied to attend Yale, where he went on to become a Professor and taught for ten years.
    He wrote six books while employed at Yale University. The last one got him into hot water with the alumni. Its title was, “Fraternities: the Dark Side of College Life.”
    Yale paid him off and he went on to teach at Georgetown, until the Benton administration asked him to come on board as “Science Advisor.”
    Tom set his cup on the table. Holy shit, the guy worked for Benton! But how did Cahill know that? Or better yet, why had he gone to see Hofer in the first place? Too many questions and not enough answers.
    Tom put his computer away and called a cab to take him to a car rental. Hopefully, he would find his answers in Virginia.

As Tom was picking up his car from Hurst Rental, Agent Louis Baker of the CIA was answering his cell phone.
    “Yes, I know who this is.” He listened intently and then repeated his orders. “We are to go to Virginia and kill a Professor Hofer, and a reporter by the name of Warring. After that we go to Finland and kill Mary Cahill and retrieve a journal she has.”
    He listened some more. “Yes, sir, I understand that the journal is most important. We have never let you down in the past, and you can count on us now.”
    The line went dead and he turned to Agent Whitehead. “George, find us a couple more good men and sign out two black SUVs. We’re going on a trip; it seems like someone was talking over the wrong telephone line.”
[Editor’s Note: The novel from which this excerpt is taken can be ordered from Amazon, as either a paperback or a Kindle book.]

Copyright © 2017 by Ed Rogers

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